Scientific examination of a crucifix of the Middle Ages from Kemeys Inferior, south Wales reveals that the wooden object seen today was once richly decorated in vibrant colours and magnificent gold leaf.
In 1850, the remains of a carved wooden figure of Christ were discovered in the church of Kemeys Inferior, a few kilometres east of Caerleon, south Wales.
An object of exceptional importance
Before the Reformation of the 16th century (when England and Wales officially turned from being a Catholic nation to a Protestant one), such figures of Christ were common throughout England and Wales and the Kemeys Christ is the most complete example of only a handful of medieval fragments to survive in Britain, and so is of exceptional importance.
Fragments of the Kemeys Inferior figure were found, 'together with skulls and bones', in 'the blocked up rood-staircase' during repairs and alterations to the church in about 1886. It was transferred in 1930 to Amgueddfa Cymru, and today it is on permanent display at National Museum Cardiff.
Although the figure was thought to be from the 14th century, arguments supporting this have never been set out in detail. Dating the figure relies on comparing other sculptures, and it is now thought to be from the late 13th century.
Made in Wales
Owing to the rarity of surviving figures in Britain from this period it is necessary to study objects from the continent for further clues. For example, late 13th-century crucifix figures from Sweden share several similar characteristics, whereas the 14th-century Christ from Mochdre, Denbighshire, the only comparable wooden figure from Wales, is quite different. The Kemeys Christ was more than likely to have been made in England or Wales.
Investigation and analysis of the crucifix
Very little of the colour that once covered the wooden figure can be seen today, but routine work done by Amgueddfa Cymru in 1999 led to in-depth investigation of the surface of the object.
The figure was X-rayed and viewed under ultra violet (UV) and infra-red (IR) light before being examined under the microscope. This revealed the original colour scheme, with differences between the torso and the arms, previously considered to have been later additions.
Vivid and rich colours
In contrast to its present condition, the Kemeys Christ originally boasted a vivid and richly coloured appearance as was popular throughout the Middle Ages. Great care was taken in decorating the figure. When new, it would have shone with gold leaf.
Examination of the figure has revealed considerable evidence of polychromy (use of many colours), and, like other examples of medieval sculpture, over-painting. Although little colour survives on the arms, the right arm does have two layers, which may suggest replacement of the left arm either during the first half of the 16th century or even earlier.
At least three layers of painting have been detected, though the dating of each is problematic. The secondary colour scheme appears to have included gilding on the hair; gold, red and blue on the inside of the loin-cloth; dark brown and black details on the face; a green crown of thorns; and flesh tones in pale pink, with red emphasising the wounds.
Stunning polychrome work like this would have been standard on such an important sculpture. The Kemeys figure clearly represents Christ on the cross, who is portrayed alive, with his eyes still open.
The Kemeys Christ is a rare survival of pre-Reformation devotional figures once common in the British Isles. With the original height of about 94 cm, this powerful image of Christ's suffering would have been widely seen and prayed to, and formed a purposeful part of everyday life.